Urbanism, Precariousness and the ruins of Modernity in Beckett’s Not I.
The Irish Society for Theatre Research (ISTR)
University of Birkbeck, London 2013
The growth of the urban landscape has been at the core of emerging modernity. Certainly post-world war modernism has had its impact on social spaces and the emergence of the cityscape as the utopian ideal. In this paper, I will argue that it is in the modern urban landscape that Beckett’s Not I resides. Corina Martin-Jordache notes that ‘Beckett’s cities seem to have gone a long way from the proud city-states of antiquity or the enlightened cities of the renaissance. They are the exhausted cities of the twentieth century modernity, post-Waste Land cities.’ (2002:366) But what of Becket’s plays? What of the theatrical space itself? Does it perform the same ‘urbanism’ or urban space as the descriptions of the cities in Molloy or Mercier and Camier that Martin-Jordache discusses. Can the figures that populate Beckett’s theatrical landscape internalise the elements of modernity that form part of the cityscape and perform that urbanism?
In 1972 Samuel Beckett wrote Not I, a play designed (in Beckett’s words) to work on the ‘nerves of the audience’ rather than its intellect. It is a play that closes down the theatrical space where the focus is not on a figure or an actor onstage but on a body part, a mouth. The narrative is rushed, vaguely coherent and delivered in an anguished, prolonged torrent of words. I will examine the space that is evoked in Not I, and explore how it is essentially modernist and urban. It opens up a space that echoes the urbanism prevalent and in Mouth (its protagonist) creates a figure that embodies the precariousness of urban living. I want to examine how place is registered in Not I and what kind of place does it depict. How does the theatrical space of Not I relate to the modern landscape. How do spaces of interiority such as the theatre itself or the thought process evoked in Not I describe or link to these exterior places?
First staged in 1972, Not I consists of two characters though only one, the main protagonist known as Mouth (a body part) speaks. The second character, the auditor, which is frequently dropped from many stage productions (including a production Beckett himself directed) has four brief movements where he raises his arms in helpless compassion. The stage instructions call for a ‘Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow’. The text is circular in structure repeating much of the same imagery throughout. Although dense and barely coherent in places there is a narrative in the story that can be broken down into an introduction followed by four ‘movements’. Here is a link to Billie Whitelaw’s performance filmed by the BBC in the 1973.
As Paul Lawley has noted the mouth has no form ‘in itself it is a no-thing, a “no matter” an absence.’(1983: 412) The introduction relates to the beginning of the narrator’s life (she is now nearly seventy years old) as the breathless and aggressive syntax tells us of her early childhood, ‘.…out…into this world…this world…tiny little thing…before its time…’(377) She had a traumatic upbringing, her parents having abandoned her almost immediately, ‘…parents unknown…unheard of…he having vanished…thin air…no sooner buttoned up his breeches…’ (377) Towards the end of the section she refers to an unspecified traumatic experience that happen on an April morning, ‘…when suddenly…gradually all went out…’(377) This experience is repeated in each of the following sections along with the exclamation, ‘…what?..who?..no!..she!…’. This vague catastrophe that occurs on an April morning is not expanded upon but its effect is detrimental on Mouth.
One of the most crucial points in this play is Mouth’s inability to accept that this traumatic experience is her own. The title refers to a negation of the self and throughout she insists on speaking in the third person, ‘not knowing what…what she was-…what?..no!..she!..SHE!’ The use of the third person reflects Mouth’s consistent evading of personal responsibility, of the self. It is only at the end of each segment that she is confronted with the inescapable realisation that it is she, herself that has experienced this, ‘…what?..Who?..No!..she!…’ ‘What?…’ she responds to a seemingly internal question, ‘…Who?..’ She appears to face the notion that this is indeed a personal experience, ‘…No!..’ she vehemently denies her involvement, ‘…she!…’ she again points to the third person and the cycle begins again. The result is a ceaseless performance from where neither the narrator or the audience can escape. Alec Reid noted that, ‘I knew with every fibre of my being that I had been deluged in a flood of anguish from which I could not escape even though I could not know with what or whom I was involved. My first words were, “I have been scoured.”’ (1986:14)
The flood of anguish that is emitted throughout the performance, the deliberately confined, closed down space of both actor and audience, the circular pattern with its endless cycle of futile repetition. Again, the question of how does Not I relate to the modern landscape. What kind of place does it depict? Brian Gratten in ‘The Posthumous Worlds of Not I and Play’ argues that we are in Mouth’s purgatorial world after she has died (in that vague catastrophe I mentioned earlier). Authors such as Katherine Kelly and Enoch Brater argue that we are, in fact, in Mouth’s head with the Auditor being another aspect of her psyche. Paul Lawley claims that none of this matters, the narrative, the trauma. What matters is the ‘magnetic’ (2012: 247) stage image:
It is unignorable, attracting the text to itself and thus insisting upon a present-tense dimension to the story. The text hovers in panic between a past other, of which and whom it can safely talk, and a present self…The counterpoint between stage and text enacts the play’s fundamental conflict: between the need to deny the imperfect self and to maintain, even in agony, a fictional other, and the wish for an oblivion that would come with the acknowledgement of the fragmented self.’ (2012: 247)
The key to Not I lies not in the narrative gushing forth but in the tensions that exist between Mouth’s denial of the self that has trapped her in this space, in the present-tense and her wish for oblivion which will come with an acceptance of the fragmented self. How does a mouth on a stage transmit a ‘self’ awareness to an audience? It’s not a body, a whole body but a piece of a body. That stage image of the body fragmented. It is the tension that rests between she and I that exist on the stage for the audience. A stage that is for the most part dark. Mouth has been described as orifice and her monologue described as purging, a bodily purging, a physical act. For the audience the blackness of the spaces around the mouth and the impression of the mouth as symbolic of all bodily orifices triggers in the words of Anna McMullan a ‘body…turned inside out, and continually recycled by the voice as waste material.’(2010:118) There is no presence, no body on stage that would form a traditional performance. What is being performed is the absence of a body. It’s interesting to link this idea with Daniel Dennett’s image of the ‘self’ as constructed through the material we gather in our environment. Self as a constant narrative devised as we make sense of the world around us,
we…do not consciously and deliberately figure out what narratives to tell and how to tell them; like spiderwebs, our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. Our human consciousness and our narrative selfhood is their product, not their source. (1991: 417-418)
If we are a product of a narrative generated from our surroundings then what space is surrounding the talking mouth in Not I? The places of memory she recounts existing as it does within the space of the theatre which is in itself surrounded by the urban environment. Elaine Scarry claims that for the effect on the audience is where
[o]ne seems to become disembodied either because one seems to have been transported hundreds of feet beyond the edges of the body out into the external world, or instead because the images of objects from the external world have themselves been carried into the interior of the body as perceptual content, and seem to reside there displacing the dense matter of the body itself. (1985: 165)
Mouth performs this very intersection, the melding of the internal and external world. Her anguished monologue certainly echoes the uncertainties associated with urban living. Moving through the city Walter Benjamin notes ‘involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous crossings nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy in a battery.’ (1968:76) Is the energy, the ‘nervous impulses’ describing the movement through the urban space being performed or echoed in Mouth’s nervous energy? The experience of moving through the city is impossible given that Mouth is just that, a mouth but through her performance that external world is brought inside into the space of the auditorium. In a chapter, ‘Walking in the City’ Michel de Certeau argues that the urban space of the street emerges through the usage of the embodied person. In Rambling as Resistance, Jason Kosnoski challenges Michel de Certeau’s idea of walking in the city as a potentially radical act by suggesting that in our postmodern urban space where,
Individuals face more and more observation, control and discipline through both spatial and temporal strategies upon the body, yet the fragmentation of spaces, cities and regions ensure that individuals do not traverse the entirety of their environment with freedom or creativity. (2010:127-28)
This fragmentation of space is certainly echoed in Not I but is conducive to the creation of space. Could the theatrical space evokes in Not I be described as an urban environment, an urban landscape? The contemporary urban landscape contains within its geographical spaces the concerns that are prevalent in much of Beckett’s work: alienation, loneliness, paralysis. Yet the phrase ‘landscape’ itself is problematic. Cultural Geographer, John Wylie describes landscape as, ‘a tension between proximity and distance, body and mind, sensuous immersion and detached observation. Is landscape the world we are living in, or a scene we are looking at, from afar?’ (2007: 1) Raymond Williams argues that, ‘the very idea of landscape implies separation and observation.’ (1985:126) Something to be looked at from a distance, and something (in the same way scenery in a theatre might be) not to be interacted with. These tensions between the body and its environment, between being both immersed and outside the space is reflective not just of the audience in the theatrical space but in Mouth’s way of seeing herself. The traumatic event that has instigated her denial of identity has left her unable to place herself in the world.
She does, however describe the world, and it is in the form of a landscape. In his work, Landscape and Memory, Simon Schema notes that,
we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock. (1995, pp. 6–7)
Mouth’s memory of her environment features strongly in the monologue. She describes, ‘…wandering in a field…looking aimlessly for cowslips.’ She repeatedly likens a ray of light in her skull to one, ‘the moon might cast,’ ‘and all the this ray or beam…like moonbeam’ the site of her tramatic event which she returns to again and again, ‘back in the field…April morning…face in the grass…nothing but the larks.’ There are urban environments, ‘even shopping…out shopping….busy shopping centre…supermart….just hand in the list…with the bag…then stand there waiting…any length of time…middle of the throng’ She describes her home as ‘a little mound in Croker’s acres’ Schama argues that ‘it is our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape’ (1995:10) But although Mouth remembers the natural world, it is all descriptive. The images, that landscape is not reconstructed in the theatre either physically through the use of scenery or mentally. Again the narrative falls short in the fact of the overwhelming presence of the stage image. The performance exists in the present-tense and the landscape it evokes is also modern.
Rather than seeing the landscape from the traditional Western mode, that is objectively, from a rational or scientific perspective, something to be gazed upon, Mouth inhabits the landscape. Not the traditional landscape but a landscape of modernity, the twentieth century landscape with that clear binary of nature and culture. A binary, perhaps, that Mouth cannot overcome. Through the memories that she evokes in her monologue and her concrete engagement with the space of the stage, she exists in the throes of modernity. Circular rather than linear, one where the body in space is not articulated with the entire body but fragmented. From the outside in, Beckett’ theatrical landscape internalises the elements of modernity that form the urban landscape and performs that urbanism in Not I.